The Importance of Working With Young People to Prevent Bullying

October 31, 2019
“If it’s about us, without us, it’s not for us”

This quote is at the heart of how Sticks ‘n Stones works. Authentic and meaningful involvement of young people at all levels of decision making sets our approach apart from traditional bullying prevention programs. We now have over 400 8-18-year-olds that take part in regular training every two weeks to challenge and change norms, attitudes and behaviors that accept bullying (online or off). We believe that change takes time and support needs to be ongoing and relevant for young people to be empowered to lead positive social change so that bullying can be a thing of the past.

“Our involvement is so important because we can influence our peers better than anyone else! We are also looked up to by kids younger than us so we can be good influences on them too.”
How did it all begin?

In 2013, 30 teenagers from five different High Schools in Central Otago, New Zealand took up the challenge to create a new approach to preventing bullying. Frustrated by the number of school-wide presentations they watched each year on everything from safe sex to cyberbullying, these teens felt like something needed to change. It felt like they were being expected to develop the skills to be able to avoid any and all risk simply by being spoken to once.

“If I want to change my behavior it has to be my idea and I have to really want to. Being told by someone else what to do can makes us more resistant or we may not even think we are part of the problem.”

Together they created a new approach to tackling bullying. Working in partnership with adults these teens put themselves forward to do something different. To be fully involved right from the beginning and to use their experiences and expertise of what it means to be a young person balancing life alongside pressure, issues, drama and the need to fit in. These teens wanted to avoid messages based on fear and long lists of ‘don’ts’ and instead focus on developing social and emotional skills and confidence to stand up for themselves and others.

Why does this matter?

At least half of the founding members from 2013 are still involved with Sticks ‘n Stones today. Juggling study or full-time work, they still make time for the organization they founded. We often hear about the difficulty of keeping young people involved, especially when today’s teens juggle school, part-time work, sport, extra-curricular activities with family and trying to have some kind of social life. When decisions are being made with young people and these ideas shape what we do, it becomes something that they value and feel a true part of. The best ideas have come directly from our team. They know what it's like to navigate the blurred lines of time online and off and have innovative and practical ideas for keeping this positive. One idea is our online help tool, In Case of Online Negativity, which offers jargon and judgment-free support for young people experiencing online negativity.

Young people leading change

Our High School students noticed shortly after we set up Sticks ‘n Stones that to make a difference to the behavior of their peers, we needed to start with practical support for younger students. We co-designed a pilot program for 11-13-year-olds and our High School Advocates headed out into schools to test the sessions. From here, we developed 18 sessions covering topics like self-esteem, self-talk, resilience, empathy, assertive communication, problem-solving, understanding bullying, being an active bystander, online tools and support and help-seeking that we now facilitate every two weeks to 13 different school groups.

Sessions are facilitated in school time by one of our team who works with groups of 15-30 ambassadors for 45-60 minutes. Every session starts with a game, followed by the introduction of a concept or skill, then an activity followed by reflection and feedback. Small group or paired work supports students to be engaged and feel safe to share their experiences, ideas and opinions.

“Young people are the only ones who understand what it is like to be a young person today and we can directly relate to the bullying and issues we face. We’re the only ones with the expertise and knowledge of how best to target our peers and make a difference.”

85% of young people who took part in the program this year reflected that they felt more confident to be an active bystander and 86% felt they had more skills than before to be themselves (and support others to be themselves too).

Feedback from students and teachers showed us that these skills are just as important (if not more important) with younger students. We then co-designed a 16 session program for 9-11-year-olds alongside a psychologist to support earlier development of skills with a focus on friendship, emotions and self-confidence which was regularly facilitated with 9 different groups this year.

Also, this year we kicked off a partnership with Facebook to train teens across the country as Online Advocates supported by an online training platform, regular webinars, and collaboration.

Young people are not the leaders of tomorrow, they are leaders today. Stopping bullying involves us so it should be with us.

“Groups like SnS are fantastic because they provide an atmosphere where young people feel comfortable to share their ideas and where they will actually be put into action. It’s so important to give the opportunity to young people to be involved in something that is so much greater than just themselves, for them to have the opportunity to make a difference.”

Written by

Karla Sanders

Karla Sanders founded Sticks ‘n Stones in 2013 alongside 30 passionate teenagers committed to empowering other young people to understanding the part we all play in stopping bullying.

A Primary trained teacher, Karla spent 8 years overseas in a number of roles from classroom teaching in West Sydney in an Islamic School to working with Local Authorities to integrate Education, Health, Social Care and community groups as part of Extended Schools legislation.

On her return to NZ in 2010, Karla took up a role as a Regional ICT PD Facilitator alongside teaching a One Day School Gifted Programme.

Since 2013, Karla has been the adult that empowers our young people to realise our vision of a Bully Free NZ where EVERY (young) person is accepted and respected for who they are.

Karla is a Google certified Innovator, Vodafone World of Difference fellowship recipient and has been a finalist in the Women of Influence (Education) and NEXT Woman of the year (Community) awards.

She has committed hundreds and hundreds of unpaid hours to growing our organisation and is the ‘glue’ that keeps everything together.